Has Pakistan’s new coalition government been handed a poisoned chalice?

Simmering tension between the two coalition partners threatens to hobble the capacity of the new government to tackle the multiple crises facing Pakistan.

Expert comment Published 21 February 2024 Updated 22 February 2024 3 minute READ

After days of intense political bargaining following one of the most contested elections in Pakistan’s history, agreement was reached this week on a five-party minority coalition government led by former interim prime minister, Shahbaz Sharif, of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).  

The protracted negotiations between the centre-right PML-N and the centre-left Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) were complicated by a split mandate that failed – against all expectations – to produce a clear winning majority for the PML-N. Its credibility, and by extension the standing of the coalition, has been strongly challenged by former prime minister Imran Khan, leader of the Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), which denounced the coalition as ‘mandate thieves’.  

Khan’s group of independent candidates won the largest number of seats (92), far ahead of the PML-N, which came second with 75 seats, and the PPP which came third with 54 seats. Khan, who is currently in jail serving extended prison sentences, has since claimed that his candidates were deprived of an absolute majority through widespread electoral fraud.

His allegations have shocked the country and received international attention. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has expressed concern and urged all election disputes to be legally resolved, while US and UK governments have called for an investigation into purported irregularities. In a dramatic escalation of the crisis, a commissioner in Rawalpindi last week accused the chief election commissioner and the chief justice of Pakistan of putting him under ‘pressure’ to change the election results and withhold seats from winning candidates backed by the PTI.

While these claims have been firmly rejected by the election commission and the caretaker administration, the ensuing confusion has threatened to destabilize the smooth transition of power. The PTI, supported by smaller parties, has staged countrywide mass demonstrations and demanded that the people’s ‘real mandate’ be recognized. But there are also indications that the PTI has instructed its candidates to join the opposition. This could spell more instability by obstructing the business of an already fragile coalition.

Challenges to the coalition government are by no means limited to the PTI. Its prospects are also at risk from the conditional support offered by the PPP.

Challenges to the coalition government are by no means limited to the PTI. Its prospects are also at risk from the conditional support offered by the PPP.

It rejected a power-sharing formula with the PML-N that would have involved rotating prime ministers and is said to have refused all ministerial posts – seen as a calculated move to avoid being party to unpopular decisions needed to fix the economy.  Agreement was reached only after the PML-N agreed to support the PPP in its bid to secure all top constitutional positions for the party, notably a second five-year term as president for its leader, Asif Ali Zardari, as well as the posts of speaker of the National Assembly and chairman of the Senate (the upper house of parliament).

Earlier some frustrated members of the PML-N had objected to the PPP’s terms and declared that ‘coalition government can’t work on this principle’. Simmering tension between the two sides still threatens to hobble the capacity of the new coalition to tackle the multiple crises facing Pakistan.

The most urgent will be to stabilize the national economy. A $3 billion bail-out package negotiated with the IMF last June, which helped Pakistan avert a sovereign default, expires in April and it is widely expected the new government will move quickly to negotiate a fresh agreement to stay solvent.

Managing Pakistan’s ballooning external debt will be another critical test. According to the latest estimates, Pakistan external debts have surged to $125 billion with at least $24 billion in loans to be repaid by November 2024. The new coalition government can be expected to turn to Pakistan’s traditional allies, China and the United Arab Emirates, for help. However, they are said to be unwilling to offer fresh assistance unless Pakistan demonstrates more resolve in implementing structural reforms of its own. 

Such reforms are likely to involve the privatization of loss-making enterprises and measures to raise Pakistan’s tax-to-GDP ratio, which has remained stagnant at between 10-11 per cent. However, any job losses resulting from privatization are sure to fuel public anger with spiralling inflation at above 30 per cent, while any move to significantly widen the tax base will be met with stiff resistance from powerful interests within the agricultural, real estate and retail sectors.

Another immediate challenge for the new government will be to address the deteriorating security situation in the provinces of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Baluchistan. Both regions have witnessed a sharp escalation in terrorist attacks in recent months mounted by factions of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and militant Baluch nationalists.

But securing the cooperation of provincial governments, each likely to be headed by different parties, will be far from easy. In KP, where a majority of PTI-backed independent candidates hostile to a PML-led coalition is set to take power, problems could intensify if – as when last in office – pro-PTI ministers pursue a peace agreement with the TTP.  As prime minister, Khan was known to be partial to the TTP, incurring the wrath of Pakistan’s military establishment.


The range and complexity of these domestic challenges means that the new government could be forced to delay vital foreign policy decisions, including managing tense relations with Afghanistan and Iran. Expectations of a PML-N government with a robust mandate led by Nawaz Sharif, who was keen to prioritize ties with India, are unlikely to be realized by a weak coalition. 

On the other hand, the new government can be expected to reinforce existing ties with China and to try and mend fences with Saudi Arabia and the United States, after relations with both countries came under strain during Khan’s tenure as prime minister.    

Arguably the greatest and most immediate challenge for the new government will be to lower the political temperature and respect the split verdict delivered by these elections.

But arguably the greatest and most immediate challenge for the new government will be to lower the political temperature and respect the split verdict delivered by these elections. The hostile and divisive language unleashed by the PTI’s brand of populist politics must be replaced with a decisive shift in favour of political accommodation to restore the country’s shattered national unity. 

This will require, above all, for elected politicians to come together to resolve their differences among themselves and look to voters – not the military establishment – as the ultimate arbiters of their political fortunes.